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Parks & The Art of Mowing

September’s clearing of vegetation by the Parks Department along Lake Washington Boulevard through Frink and Leschi Parks was a mixed bag.

The Park Department’s clearing of blackberries along Lake Washington Boulevard has had mixed results. The Department does not allow volunteers to do roadside maintenance due to liability concerns, so that now roadside maintenance is the responsibility of the Department.

The work of the hired contractor whose crew cut back invasive blackberries in most of the newly cleared areas was excellent. The sightline for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists going south and approaching the stop sign at Frink Place South/South Jackson Street is much improved. It is more evident that the natural slope of the hill is a limiting factor for the view ahead.

Work by hand is the best practice for landscape care. By cutting the blackberries and dabbing the cut stubs with herbicide, the blackberries will be severely discouraged and the underlying native plants will have a better chance of thriving.

However, Parks also sent out a mowing machine for the part of the work on the western edge of the Boulevard at the north end of Leschi Park. By slashing through the vegetation, the mower destroyed or seriously injured native plants that were installed by volunteers and were mixed with blackberries. The native plants were installed in order to discourage people from parking along the road edges and to beautify the park. Instead, with the mowing, there is parking for at least six vehicles.

The mowing is actually a double whammy. Not only are the new native plants damaged, but for years, nearby neighbors have been affected by nighttime use of the parking lot next to the tennis courts. Now, people can park along the Boulevard at night.

The mowing is in direct conflict with the Olmsted prescription for roadside planting in natural areas and in direct conflict with the Frink/Upper Leschi Plan that was an effort of the Leschi Community Council collaborating with the Park Department in 1998 to 2000.

The current mowing is much the result of the current Park Department maintenance policy to use citizen complaints as the basis for much of the official maintenance work. The resulting clash of opinions: the stewards of Frink Park and support from the Leschi Greenspace Committee of LCC were on one side. Complaining neighbors were on the other. Parks took the political way and listened to the loudest and hence, we had the destructive mowing. To his credit, Darrell Howe, Frink Park Steward, successfully negotiated to secure the work of the natural area’s contractor for the cutting of blackberries by hand in most of the affected area.

Over all this, the Park Department’s representatives tell us that the Department does not have funds to replant the cleared areas or to install bollards that would discourage parking. We may be in for more roadside mowing in the future years, instead of landscape edges.

John’s concern about this pattern of mowing and whacking was expressed in a letter to the Olmsted Legacy group:

To the Olmsted Legacy Task Force:

It is truly urgent, if you have not done so already, to express the needs for better care of the Olmsted parks and boulevards. The City is in the process of preparing the budget for the second six-year period for the Seattle Park District.

At present, the District seriously lacks the funding commitment to responsibly manage and maintain the parks and boulevards.

Staff is so stressed that the fallback method for maintaining the landscape next to boulevards is machine mowing/thrashing. This year the boulevards are characterized by sections of landscape mowed to the ground, ugly brown scabs. There are virtually no plans for re-vegetating these gaps. The coming years will see repeated mowings and continuing uglification.

Staff claims that it operates on a “complaint” basis—not a schedule of regular maintenance care—basically not a system at all.

They wait for complaints, and then they prioritize when to send in garden or natural areas crew, or too frequently, the machine mowers. Staff suggests that they need to operate this way because there are not the resources committed to do otherwise. Parks maintenance should be working according to a calendar of landscape care that meets the needs of each park and boulevard.

Approved landscape maintenance plans are frequently skirted by Parks employees with the result of discouraging volunteer stewards who sacrificed to raise money for planning and to clear landscape areas, plant, and maintain them by approved plans.

An example is Frink Park, which has a vegetation management plan that was approved by the Parks Board in 2001; also Colman Park which had an even earlier plan. Repeatedly, Parks staff has destroyed, by weed whacking and mowing, native ground cover and shrubs that were planted by volunteers. Besides the roadway edges, the edges of trails are subjected to harsh hacking of plants.

Clearly, Parks needs to increase its staff with additional gardeners, assistant gardeners, ecologists, and landscape and natural areas crews. Management also must be staffed to oversee a professional system of landscape maintenance.

A planning effort should be undertaken to analyze and clarify the landscape treatment of the edges of parks and boulevards. The edges are where the great majority of City residents experience the boulevards, parks and natural areas.

Edge treatment defines an experience of the landscape. As the Olmsteds noted, there are differences along the way of traveling on the boulevards through residential areas, “passive” parks, and natural areas deserve appropriate landscape design and care.

Through Frink Park and Colman, for example, the natural area is defined by bringing native ground cover to the edge of the pavement, and care should be to control the plants from intruding into the traffic areas or obstructing views for safety. Over the years, mowing and weed whacking forays have destroyed native landscape ground covers

Funds are needed to re-think the transportation elements of the parks and boulevard system. Some boulevards have become major carriers of commuter traffic—a use that was not anticipated by the Olmsteds and out of keeping with the intended experience for park users.

In some sections of the boulevards, the pedestrians are taking over by walking in the roadway due much to the lack of alternative paths along the sides. Lake Washington Boulevard between intersections with Lakeside Avenue has become a de facto woonerf. Perhaps sections of the boulevards should be woonerfs, and perhaps some sections where space and topography permit should have paths and separate bike lanes. We should not wait another six years to correct these conflicts of use.

In the overall universe of City needs, these do not require huge expenditures, but with the growing population, changes in recreational lifestyles and the stress of urban life, a little bit of budget commitment can go a long way.

~John Barber

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